Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Consuming Beauty

Landscape of Sky

We cannot co-exist with beauty, without facing the instinct to consume it. That's what Caitlin Neufeld says in her article "Buying into Beauty" (Geez, Summer 2007). Our consumer attitude, she asserts, runs the gamut from wanting to share a sunset, to wanting to write a story, to wanting to take a picture. Sex and picking a flower were also included in the list.

I pondered her thoughts and wondered what beauty really means. Isn't it by nature something that stirs up desire in us? Without that desire, would we really be talking about beauty?

In the end, I couldn't help but wonder where the fine line is between consumption and celebration, exploitation and appreciation. It seemed that for Neufeld there was no line at all. To want to preserve something by taking it home in any form, even as an inspiring memory was problematic. And so I left her article with a haunting sense that, indeed, I might be judged for consuming beauty.

Beautiful Skyscape at Secret Spot photo, by L.L. Barkat.

Seedlings Invitation: If you write a post related to this post and Link It Back Here, let me know and I'll link to yours.


Nikki's What the Heavens Declare

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Blogger Charity Singleton said...

I have found this need to consume or own something to be true in my own appreciation of beauty. Sometimes, this even manifests itself with people -- I want to preserve the beauty in our relationship by owning it somehow, being in control. To me, consumption is taking something for myself so that I leave less for others. I can think of many ways that I have being a consumer, at the very least by taking a memory of a beautiful sunset, where there is plenty left for others. And when I transform that sunset into a picture others can enjoy, then I have actually increased what is left for others.

5:15 PM  
Blogger 23 degrees said...

A friend once said to me that "beauty fixes us." I think what he meant, at least in part is that beauty gives us hope that one day our lives will once again have the color and fragrance of Eden.

When we stand in awe over the detail of a flower, the beauty of a starry night, or the beauty we find in each other's eyes, words, or touch, we get fixed in some small way.

Lust, greed corrupt beauty by being utterly possessed by the need to always have more and never being satisfied.

Maybe the fine line between celebration and exploitation is context and intent? Husbands are told to let their wife's breasts satisfy them at all times and to be enraptured with her love (Proverbs 5:19) But if in our greed or thoughtlessness we lean too hard to enjoy this gift of beauty (or look someplace else for it) love takes a back seat to greed and lust and we miss the true joy of what was intended by this stirring of our desire. Beauty brings with it a call of responsibility and care, in whatever we find beautiful.

Phil 4:8 ... whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.

1:43 AM  
Blogger Craver Vii said...

During the process of sanctification, we can hopefully learn to appreciate without coveting. It's strange to me though, how even we who have the same Spirit, don't necessarily care about the same things. There is a major effort still required for us to authentically love one another. Our tolerances for consumption and exploitation is probably one of the schools of sanctification.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Mark Goodyear said...

Alright, I'm going to invoke Keats again. "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is a poem about beauty and truth. He describes a piece of art, a beautiful Greek urn. The urn is empty of course. Philosophically, its beauty has no power without someone to appreciate it. If it fell out of a tree in the forest and no one was around, it wouldn't make any noise.

But Keats shows that we fill the art with ourselves. This doesn't have to be an act of control or domination or colonization or consumption, though.

From a Christian perspective, I would say beauty and truth bring out the Spirit in me. Why wouldn't I share that?

9:50 AM  
Blogger Mark Goodyear said...

Also, I look to communion as my model for being a holy consumer. Consuming beauty in community is a good thing.

9:50 AM  
Blogger bluemountainmama said...

wow....i guess i would be VERY guilty according to Neufeld, as I rarely am able to go for a hike or venture outdoors without bringing home a memento, whether acorns for our nature shelf, a flower to dry, or a birds nest that fell out of a tree. and photographs? i won't even go there.....

nature stirs something so profound and deep in us.... in my view, its a message from our Creator...a tiny glimpse into his majesty, mysticism, greatness, awesomeness... and a glimpse of his love for us. scripture talks of this, of God speaking to us through his creation. maybe that's why we feel we need to consume it...somehow ingest more of it.

but i think that gets misguided....both in nature worship and sadly, in the area i am from, nature gets overrun and developed with all that want a "piece of the pie" so to speak.

i recently watched a documentary about an amish community in so many people flocked there b/c of the peace and tranquility....and suddenly, the big amish farms were being bought by developers, subdivided in to little acre tracts with new homes...and now, the amish themselves are being run out. everyone wanted in on this 'simple, country life' and in the process the whole landscape got destroyed.

anyways, rant aside... a lot to think about.

also, i had a dream about you last night. :) i had to go to your house to pick something up (can't remember what) and i was surprised to see that you lived on a HUGE piece of land out in the country. i told you that you didn't live in the suburbs, like you said you did. you had all kinds of wild things growing and we walked around and talked about them all and had a long discussion on homeschooling. funny! thought i'd let you know. maybe it was seeing your lilies yesterday. :)

9:53 AM  
Blogger L.L. Barkat said...

Charity... Thanks for your candid comment. It is interesting to consider whether control is always a bad thing. When I exert control over a flower by picking it and placing it in a vase, am I not possibly participating in positive control? Your point about leaving less for others as a way to judge is interesting to me. This could include leaving less for all kinds of others (people, wildlife, plants... once, when we wanted to pick this incredible wildflower in the woods, we left it there because it seemed to be the only one of its kind and to pick it would to be "leaving less"). And I'm even more enchanted with your thought about providing increase through transformation. Certainly as an artist and writer and harvester of wild things, I can see the beauty in that!

23 Degrees... what a lovely statement. When you said that, I was thinking of the word fixes not so much as to-fix-what-is-broken, but more like to fix our attention, to focus us towards hope and expectation. And your thought about consuming being related to the never-enough attitude resonates with me. I do see how that has a strange up-side though, in that it might be a manifestation of our longing for God's shalom. Oh! And that beauty relates to responsibility and care. I could think on that for at least a few more pages.

Craver... yes, why do we tolerate consumption and exploitation?

Mark... every time you invoke Keats I get a better understanding of that poem. I still haven't heard enough from you about it, and think that perhaps I never will. I love your thoughts about filling the art with ourselves (as opposed to the art simply filling us!). And certainly a communal filling is most wonderful (I sense a poem coming on over there at Goodword!)

Blue... I'm thinking that the developers needed to speak with Charity first! To consider how to make this transformation something that provided increase instead of loss. These endeavors can be complicated, but I think with creativity they can be accomplished. I think of the work of McDonough and Braungart (Cradle to Cradle: remaking the way we make things) whose goal in any architecture or product is to provide increase, not devastating decrease. And can I say that somehow your dream captured my emotions... I was overcome with that picture of you and I meandering together, sharing. Also, I'm originally from deep country, and I think you stirred a longing in me. It has become a spiritual discipline for me to treat this tiny bit of land like a HUGE gift, but indeed my spirit knows what a real field and stream and old pine wood is like.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Craver Vii said...

There could be lots of reasons we tolerate certain levels of consumption and exploitation. Take consumption, for example. How much living space do we need versus how much do we use. How about sleeping quarters? Some people have a standard where their sleeping quarters are something else by day, or the parents allow the children to sleep in the bed with them. Personally, I don't think it's a sin to have a separate bed for each of my kids, and that their beds are fixed furniture. They sleep upstairs, and we do everything else downstairs. Some of these things are just cultural norms, but I think it's a healthy exercise to ask ourselves why we have different standards, and be willing to accept (tolerate) that some folks will just do things differently. As we think about these things, maybe we will change our minds about specific areas. No air-conditioned dog houses for the Craver residence. I think that is wasteful and silly, but I wouldn't react the same for that as I would for something like domestic violence.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Real Live Preacher said...

I heard you might be a part of the High Calling network, and I thought I'd drop by.

What a fascinating subject. I've been searching out my own needs to consume for the last few years. For me it often manifests itself in a desire to own something beautiful. Let me pick it or photograph it or buy it or drag it to my house.

The irony is, even if I could afford to own a Picasso, I'd get tired of looking at it every day.

I once read someone describe a part of the spiritual journey as learning to enjoy things without having to own them.

1:43 PM  
Blogger Ted M. Gossard said...

God has given us richly all things to enjoy. The problem would be when our enjoyment is a violation of God's will and of loving him and our neighbor, I believe.

Interesting subject.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Lynet said...

Charity's distinction between leaving less for others and leaving just as much for others is the most important thing, I think. If 'consumption' of beautiful scenery doesn't take anything away from others, then what could possibly be wrong with it? And I like that point about making a picture of the sunset actually increasing what is left for others.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

My instinct is to draw it, photograph it - capture it in some way - preserve it to share - always to share for what is worship if it is not shared with someone else - the chance to tell about the beloved - and this is what the joy of observing creation in all its intricacies does for me - it causes me to long for someone to share it with who will understand, on a soul level, what it means to me and how it draws me closer to the creator.

1:31 AM  
Blogger Every Square Inch said...


Thanks for your post. It reminds me of something I posted on about 3-4 months ago.

The Washington Post commissioned an experiment to find out if beauty was self evident. They asked Joshua Bell, a world class violinist to play classical music on a Stradivarius in the middle of a Washington DC metro train station. Needless to say, it didn't evoke much of a response.

I'm sure it was beautiful but no one consumed, no one celebrated. Perhaps that's one evidence of our fallen state...that beauty is no longer self evident to us...that we cannot celebrate or consume without the pull of exploitation.

In the middle of your post you were musing if the essence of beauty is validated by desire. I'd like to offer that the answer is similar to how we might view truth. Truth is absolute and true not because people believe but because it comes from God. Beauty derives meaning and definition not from our desire but from God.

9:19 AM  
Blogger Erin said...

As I sat in my garden this morning, enjoying a single butterfly flitting from flower to flower, I was blessed and stilled by the beauty. It fixed me AND transfixed me.
Beauty has an inherent quality of giving and sharing. Beauty invites. Beauty is not beauty if it does not give something of itself in some way.
We can, as many have already said here, overstep those bounds of giving and take much more than is necessary. Our human drive to possess often ruins that gift of giving. (Am I making sense? Too many nebulous words here.)

I was thinking about people that buy huge plots of land, which seems like a waste and simply desiring to possess it. But I can appreciate the person that buys a huge plot of land and not only enjoys its beauty but also buys it to keep it "safe" from development and misuse. To possess something in order to preserve it. Interesting thought.

I've heard of groups that buy inner city lots and turn them into community gardens and parks. To possess something in order to redeem its beauty. Another interesting thought. That's exactly what Christ did with me.

After reading Mark's comment, I'm going to have to read some Keats.

3:40 PM  
Blogger bluemountainmama said...

laura....i thought the same after the dream....that it seems you have made something 'huge' out of the small space you have. all that you've been sharing and discovering on your wee plot of land....your 'special' place that you go to....and the wild things you've discovered. and passing it on..... to inspire others.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Christianne said...

What great thoughts being shared by everyone here!

As usual, I had to go away and think about this for awhile before commenting. It finally came to me on Friday night, after my hub and I had gotten home from seeing "Becoming Jane" (post coming soon from me on that one). I was struck dumb and silent for over an hour because it stirred something in me, and I felt I needed to respond in some way. I didn't know how, and I felt dumb. Kirk and I talked about how being caught up into beauty often spurs both of us into the need to respond in some fitting way. When we can't, we feel stuck and awestruck and even ashamed. It made me think of this post: why do I feel the need to respond at all? I feel like it would do the beauty justice to respond in some way. But then Kirk and I got caught up into a discussion of worship.

Perhaps the most fitting response to beauty is worship -- something that turns us first toward God as the true Beauty and Author of all things beautiful. Then, when we turn to create something in response, it's also a form of worship and something made from the knowledge of our own humanity.

Whereas, if we try to respond to beauty without first responding in worship, he and I both found we feel the "terror" of beauty -- that we can't possibly measure up and we try to make our response as though we are God Himself. We just can't do it. To try is to assume a form much greater than we are.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

Yeah. What Christianne said.

10:19 PM  
Blogger 23 degrees said...

Checking back and am really encouraged by the many thoughts here.

Christianne, I echo your thoughts that beauty should turn us toward God, towards worship—and our response when we create is also worship. Seargent said "to work is to pray"

On beauty, Van Gogh said "I experience a period of frightening clarity in those moments when nature is so beautiful. I am no longer sure of myself, and the paintings appear as in a dream" He is one person I want to have a coffee with in heaven.

I also stand with the halfmom in the need to share this beauty and worship of our Creator with one another.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Eve said...

I think we as human beings, long to have the beauty we see indwell us.

I think its a spiritual need. We need the Author of beauty. We crave His beauty and long to make it our own.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Nikki (and sometimes Daniel) said...

After stumbling across your blog, I posted and linked to this post in the process. Thanks for some thought-provoking commentary.


10:34 AM  

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